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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Gemäldegalerie and its Collection

What is the Gemäldegalerie?

The Gemäldegalerie is an art museum in Berlin that houses a priceless collection of European painting and sculpture, and has a turbulent past.

Gemäldegalerie interior

Roi Boshi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Gemäldegalerie Collection

The Gemäldegalerie (or Picture Gallery) houses one of the world’s most important collections of European art and sculpture. Within its 72 outstanding rooms, you’ll have the opportunity to see works by Giotto, the artist revered as the father of European painting and the first of the great Italian masters. You’ll also find yourself surrounded by one of the world’s largest and most exquisite collections of Rembrandt’s works, and you’ll stand in awe in front of the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia. Enjoy the work of Vermeer, Rubens, van Eyck, Dürer and Botticelli, and take the time to decipher some of the hundred sayings depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s enchantingly bizarre Netherlandish Proverbs.

This awe-inspiring collection has been based at the Kulturforum arts centre since 1998, in a rather severe modern building designed by Munich architects Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler, following an architectural competition held in 1986. The building certainly gives no hint of the luxury within. Once inside the gallery, you’ll be greeted by a long and light-filled central hall featuring a water installation by the American artist Walter De Maria – the only piece of contemporary art in the building! Surrounding this central hall are galleries on whose white, pink and green walls are displayed one of the world’s greatest collections of European masterworks, from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The gallery is especially proud of its strong collection of German and Italian painting from the 13th to the 16th centuries and painting from the Low Countries dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries.

Gemäldegalerie History

The gallery opened as a public institution in 1830, a combination of the private collections of Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, and Frederick the Great of Prussia. The museum’s comprehensive collection today is thanks to two of its early directors, Gustav Friedrich and Wilhelm von Bode. Both men were great connoisseurs and believed the Gemäldegalerie collection should be as educational as it was exquisite. Their significant acquisitions mean that today the museum has a near-complete survey of European painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries. In 1897, Bode founded the Patrons Association, prompting wealthy citizens to lend their backing to new acquisitions – the organisation is still active today.

The collection soon grew out of its first home at the Royal Museum (known today as the Altes Museum). In 1904, it was relocated to the purpose-built Kaiser Friedrich Museum, still standing as the Bode Museum. During the Second World War, many of the paintings you see today were hidden in fortified towers, air-raid shelters and the Thuringian salt mines. Tragically, in May 1945 a series of fires broke out in one of these towers, the Flakturm Friedrichshain. Over 400 paintings and around 300 sculptures were lost, but this wasn’t the end of the drama for the Gemäldegalerie. Cold War divisions meant that until 1997, the museum was split between two venues. Half of the collection was moved to Berlin-Dahlem in West Berlin, while the remainder stayed at the Bode Museum in East Berlin. The collection would remain divided for more than 50 years until it was reunited in all its glory.

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